I read a trio of articles this morning about United Methodists around the world reacting to issues regarding political rights and persecution. In the first, Rev. Kiboko I. Kiboko of the Iowa Annual Conference provided the latest update in the ongoing saga of his brother, Kano Kiboko, a United Methodist evangelist imprisoned in the Congo for criticizing the government. In the second, UMNS reported on United Methodist responses to violence against farmers in the Philippines protesting for food aid in the face of a severe drought. In the third, Bishop Rosemarie Wenner of Germany commented on the political situation regarding immigrants in Europe.
These three different stories, while united by some common underlying principles regarding human rights, represent three different sorts of political issues on which The United Methodist Church was called to speak. Yet herein lies some of the complexity of the UMC taking stands on political issues. Technically, General Conference is the only body capable of speaking on behalf of the UMC. Thus, the UMC as an institution has said nothing about imprisoned members in the Congo or persecuted minorities in the Philippines or migrants in Europe. Individual United Methodist leaders have.
In the absence of direct comment by the General Conference, one can point to the denomination's Social Principles as official pronouncements on political issues. Yet because they are revised only once every four years (by General Conference), the nature of the Social Principles is such that they speak in generalities rather than address specific situations. Moreover, the majority of the Social Principles were developed with US politics in mind, while none of the three incidents mentioned above occurred in the US. This is a major reason for the push to develop a set of Global Social Principles. Yet even these are likely to suffer from the same problems of broadness and infrequent revision.
The limitations of denomination-wide apparatuses for responding in a timely manner to important political issues of the day highlight the importance of episcopal leadership within The United Methodist Church. Bishops are not only called on to administer the church within their annual conferences, they are also called on to be the face of the church to the outside world within those conferences. That point is well-illustrated by all three stories. In Germany, it was Bishop Wenner speaking to the issue of immigration. In the Philippines, both Bishop Ciriaco Francisco and Bishop Rodolfo Juan were very involved in the UMC's response to the violence against protestors. Rev. Kiboko expressed frustration that United Methodist bishops in the Congo had not spoken out about his brother's plight. Agency executives are also an important witness (as Global Ministries' Thomas Kemper's statement on the Philippines situation shows), but episcopal leadership is crucial.
This arrangement has both advantages and disadvantages. Bishops know their contexts well and are often best equipped to understand and respond appropriately to political situations that arise. They already have established authority with the United Methodist flocks under their care and existing connections to the secular world when a crisis arises. Yet when it comes down to it, bishops can only express their opinions, not make pronouncements on behalf of the church. These opinions are influential ones, and the distinction is lost on many, so this may not be an issue in most cases. There may also be some instances in which the opinion of a bishop does not reflect that of the membership s/he leads or the opinion of other bishops, for better or worse.
Again, this arrangement is not necessarily problematic. Nevertheless, it is worth keeping in mind as General Conference discusses the possibility of developing a set of Global Social Principles that denominational polity determines how and through whom the UMC is able to respond to and serve as a witness regarding pressing political and social issues.